By Michael I. Niman
ArtVoice (etc.) 12/4/08
In one of our nation’s longest shameful chapters, the US maintained anti-miscegenation laws on the books until 1967. Varying from state to state, these rules made it a crime for whites and various groups of non-whites, such as black folks and Native Americans, to marry. It was only in 1967, a full 22 years after Nazi Germany’s anti-miscegenation rules ended with Hitler’s defeat, that the US Supreme Court finally nullified similar laws in 16 US states.
Fast forward to 2008—the “yes, we can” year. While the nation was celebrating the supposed zeitgeist shift ushered in by Barack Obama’s populist victory, that same election day brought with it the ratification of three new state laws, in California, Florida, and Arizona. These regulations harkened back to the old days of miscegenation bans by once again restricting marriage rights.
By now y’all realize that I’m writing about California’s Proposition 8 and two almost identical laws in Florida and Arizona that take away gay folks’ rights to marry. After 40 years of lawmaking designed to outlaw discrimination and protect individual and group rights, along comes a new wave of laws specifically authored to take someone’s civil and human rights away.
You don’t have to be gay to be frightened by this one. It’s a slippery slope once we start thinking we have the right to take someone else’s rights away. Voting to do such a thing defiles the very notion of a voting booth. I mean, really, how is it my business if my gay neighbors fall in love and want to marry? Why should I be threatened with their embrace of family values? If their religious values allow them to marry, why does the state think it can take their religious freedom away? How can the “less government” crowd in Arizona and Florida justify voting to put the government between two lovers—between fiancés? I can go on, but that’s not really what I set out to write about here.
Of the three states passing these rights-restricting laws, California got the most media coverage because few people expected this law to pass, given California’s liberal traditions. So journalists started studying exit polls to see how a state can give a huge margin of victory to “yes, we can” Barack Obama while simultaneously passing such a draconian “no, you can’t” law.
It turns out that once you study the numbers, a disturbing truth emerges. There’s the simple math. Many of the same people who voted for “yes, we can” also voted for “no, you can’t.”
Then there’s the more complex math. Exit polls argue that Proposition 8 won because 70 percent of black voters supported it. Crunching the numbers further, it appears that the surge in newly registered black voters and the higher than normal turnout among already registered black voters was enough to swing this close contest in favor of Proposition 8.
What happened here? How can people who just a generation ago were victimized by similar laws vote to reinstate such marriage-restricting laws? And how can people who voted for Barack Obama, whose parents’ marriage constituted a criminal act in 16 states, vote to recriminalize marriage?
Okay, while I’m out ruffling feathers, let’s shift gears here. Last month I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. It’s a difficult building to walk through. It’s full of ghosts—ghosts because too many things in our contemporary world make me fear that “never again” could happen again, in some way, to someone, somewhere.
This was particularly obvious when I looked at images of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was an urban enclave packed with Jews and a few other target populations, then walled off by the Nazis, with the residents left to starve. We all know about the Warsaw Ghetto. And many of us promised that as humans we’d never let such a thing happen again.
But we have. Let’s look at Gaza. The entire Palestinian territory of Gaza has the density of an urban area. And it’s surrounded by a big, impenetrable wall and a naval blockade. The Israelis, who built and guard the wall, and who run the naval blockade, at press time, are preventing food, medicine, and fuel from entering the walled-off city—like in Warsaw. The Israelis, like the Palestinians, both have legitimate issues. But reviving the ghosts of the Warsaw Ghetto is unacceptable. Never again means never again.
What’s most troubling about the Gaza situation is that this siege was conducted by the one culture on earth that should be showing the most empathy for the Gazans who are trapped and starving behind their wall. Just like you’d think black voters would be the most obvious group to be sickened by ghosts from the anti-miscegenation era.
Let’s take another jump to a seemingly unrelated topic: child molesters. Many, if not most (depending on studies cited), were themselves molested as children. The victim grows up to be the victimizer. The cycle of violence perpetuates itself. The bullied becomes the bully. Violence and abusive behavior, just like intolerance, replicates itself in the body of its victims.
I’m not saying this is why most black voters in California supported a radical anti-civil rights law. And I’m not saying that this is why most Israelis acquiesce to the blockade of Gaza. Life is more complicated than that. What I do know is that the world is riddled with replicating cycles of violence and intolerance. Sometimes the resemblance between the contemporary victimizer’s actions, and their own history of victimization, is uncanny.
It’s these uncanny replications of iconic historical moments of intolerance that make up the ghosts I’ve been seeing lately. I don’t like these ghosts. They scare me.
Michael I. Niman holds a Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies. His previous columns are available at www.artvoice.com and archived at www.mediastudy.com.
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